PREFACE and Sermon One
Of the following Sermons, the outline was sketched more
than five years ago. The first four were delivered in. March and April, 1819;
but it was not till last month that the remaining five were composed and
If they are considered as peculiarly applicable to the aspect and character of the present times, I can only express my earnest wish that they may be found as useful as they are thought seasonable. But, for my own part, I must state, that they were written, and that they are published, under the general conviction that infidelity is the prevalent disease of the human heart, and that it is always, and in all circumstances, a subject of paramount importance.
Besides illustrating the pernicious effects of infidelity on the virtue and happiness of mankind, and the guilt and danger in which it involves all who embrace it, I have endeavoured to shew that a rejection of Christianity naturally leads to speculative and practical atheism, and that the evil heart of unbelief is chargeable upon many who assume the Christian name, and who seem to think it a sufficient proof of their own faith, that they bewail and condemn the irreligion of others. These are points of no inconsiderable moment; and I recommend them to the serious attention of my readers.
On the application of the subject I could have wished to dwell at greater length. But as the work had already gone much beyond the size originally intended, I found myself obliged to desist.
A. T. EDINBURGH, Jan. 25, 1821.
HEBREWS iii. 12.
Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from tha living God.
THE "unbelief" spoken of in the text refers. to the religion of Christ. And the Hebrew converts were warned against it by the Apostle, on the ground that, if they cherished such unbelief, they would apostatize not merely from Jesus of Nazareth, but from God himself. He was as much the author of Christianity as he was of Judaism. To each of them he had assigned its place in the great scheme of his moral administration. And he had given abundant reason for embracing the former as a system, which, besides being true and important in itself, was intended to supersede and abrogate the latter. So that if they rejected it, and went back to their ancient faith, they might be said with perfect propriety to abandon both of them, as to all enlightened and practical allegiance to Him from whom both of them had proceeded, and who still lived, equally just and powerful, to punish their desertion of the new dispensation, as he punished those who despised the promises, and trampled on the authority of the old.
The principle which is here laid down extends farther than the case of the Hebrew converts. It applies with equal force to the case of all those who renounce Christianity, whatever be the religious creed which they profess to adopt or to retain. There is a natural connection between the disbelief of Christianity in particular, and the disbelief of religion in general. The one leads directly to the other. And therefore to every one who may feel himself tempted to abandon the Gospel as a "cunningly devised fable," or to regard it as unworthy of any great sacrifice, or of any strong attachment, I would with all earnestness address the admonition of the text, and enforce it by the consideration, that your unbelief as to the doctrine of Christ will be followed by your departure from "the living God,"
The position we have laid down may give offence to those who go no farther than a rejection of the Gospel, as an imputation against their understanding or their integrity. It may be stigmatised by freethinkers, as an expression of bigotry and intolerance. And it may be thought uncandid by such as would give credit to the bitterest enemies of revelation, for every degree of faith which they may pretend to cherish. It is far, however, from being gratuitous or unsupported. And, as it appears to us to be of great importance, we shall state the grounds upon which we apprehend it to be immoveably established.
I. In the first place, we appeal to the history of Deism as it is to be found in the writings of those who have embraced and supported that system.
It is worthy of remark, that the term Deist is not of an older date than the middle of the sixteenth century. The class of unbelievers who now assume this appellation, were till then denominated Atheists. And it was to avoid the odium attached to that name, that they arrogated the less forbidding and less alarming title by which they afterwards chose to be distinguished. Nor is there the least reason to believe that, when they were accused of being Atheists, the accusation had its origin either in mistake or in calumny, or that, when they substituted a milder term, they had any other view than that of bettering their reputation, by pretending to hold principles of which they were known to be destitute. On the contrary, it is a recorded and undeniable fact, that though they put on this mask, and deceived such as contemplated them at a distance - though they professed to admit the existence of a God, and though some of them professed to go a step farther, and admit the immortality of the soul - they were, nevertheless, in the habit of laughing at all religion as the dream of folly, or of reprobating it as the offspring of fraud and priestcraft
That the same thing prevailed among the unbelievers of a later period, we learn from the testimony of one of their own number, given in the most explicit manner, and in the most interesting circumstances. This person came to be convinced of his errors; and was anxious to do good to those from whom he had found it necessary to separate himself. With that view, he took the trouble of composing a manual for their use, the chief part of which was occupied in defending the great principles of natural theology, because he found them inimical to these, or doubtful of them, and because this aversion constituted one of the most formidable barriers to their reception of tbe Christian faith.
Numerous examples of the same thing are to be found in the writings of those who have held the most conspicuous place in the ranks of infidelity. We observe them not only amid their occasional professions of respect for Christianity, throwing out against it the language of ridicule and condemnation, b«t even in their avowed attempts to build up a theory of pure Deism, intentionally leaving out, or speaking lightly and contemptuously of some of the most essential principles of all religion. Whether they were allowed to fall into these aberrations by the inherent inconsistency of their system, or whether they were forced into them by the natural course and current of their argument, it is of no consequence to ascertain. The fact with which alone we have to do at present is sufficiently certain, that they have not scrupled to cast away as neither useful nor true, the doctrines of God's holiness and justice, of a superintending providence, and of a future retribution.
Nay, it is to be particularly noticed, that those individuals among them who have brought most intellect into the controversy, who seemed to possess the finest talents for asserting the sufficiency and proving the tenets of natural religion, and whose opinions have been most frequently and submissively appealed to by the enemies of Christianity, are the very men by whom Christianity and natural religion have been treated with an almost equal degree of indifference or dislike. If natural religion has appeared to be the object of their respect, and has experienced their support, it was only that, by alleging its sufficiency, they might give the deadlier blow to the faith of Jesus. But there is not a truth in the one or in the other which they have not exposed to ridicule by their profane wit, or brought into question by their ingenious speculations. And though they have not had the hardihood to avow themselves the supporters of Atheism, yet it is impossible to peruse what they have published without perceiving, that to Atheism we must come at last, if we acquiesce in their positions, and follow out the course which they have pursued.
We would not impute to any set of men one dogma which they have plainly and honestly disavowed. We are too much aware of the weakness of the human understanding, and of the errors and inadvertencies to which it is liable in the breasts of the ablest and the best, to be guilty of such a want of candour and forbearance. And we should hold it to be unjust to make one of them accountable for the statements of another which he has neither sanctioned nor acknowledged. All that we are desirous to establish is, that infidels have not been contented with merely laying aside Christianity as unnecessary for the condition of man, or as unsupported by satisfactory evidence; but that they have been equally careless of retaining certain tenets which every one must regard as of vital importance to the harmony and the utility of the least complicated form of religion. And of this their declared sentiments furnish us with the most ample and unequivocal demonstrations. And surely the fact is of the greater weight, when we recollect that it is not peculiar to those authors whose authority has been held in little respect, and has possessed little influence over the opinions of others, but that it marks the writings of individuals who yield to none of their brethren in professions of sincerity, in literary and philosophical acquirements, or in the estimation in which they have been held by the abettors of infidelity, and by the world at large.
It is no very difficult matter, indeed, to get up a theory of pure Deism. Such a thing has not only been attempted,, but accomplished. But by whom has it been accomplished? Not by infidels, but by believers in Christianity. And these have succeeded just because they were believers in Christianity. They have flattered themselves, perhaps, that they were following the mere light of nature, when in truth they were walking in the broad daylight of Revelation. They had all the materials for their scheme already laid to their hand. They had nothing to do but to separate them from what is peculiar to the Gospel as a message of pardon - and to arrange them into something like systematic order - and to annex to them some portion of argument and illustration. In fact, they have been careful never to travel out of the record. They have been restrained by their previous and settled belief in the authenticity of the Bible. Or they have been afraid of yielding to the scepticism which a momentary and formal departure from the solid ground of Revelation was beginning to engender in their minds. And accordingly they have put down nothing which was not already put down for them by the pen. of inspiration, nor have they employed any reasonings but those which, however inconclusive as to the matter in hand, may at least be quite safe in their remoter bearings on other departments of the system. But where is such a scheme to be discovered in the productions of those who have rejected Christianity ? Have they ever pretended to put together a platform of natural religion, which is repugnant in none of its parts to the dictates of revelation on that particular branch of theology? Or have they ever pretended to maintain it by arguments, whose legitimate effect is not hostile to some of their own conclusions? Yes: they have pretended such things - and they have tried them, but without success. In all those systems which have been framed by such of the Deists, as not only denied the truth of Christianity, but scorned to receive any aid from it, we observe some of the fundamental principles of religion deliberately and decidedly rejected, or abandoned to doubts as fatal to their practical efficacy as an absolute denial of them.
The history of Deism, indeed, presents us with a case which may seem to form an exception to our general statement on this part of the subject. One of its votaries did contrive to give a view of the religion of nature, which is wonderfully consistent and free from gross imperfections. But then, it is evidently borrowed from the sacred Scriptures, with which he was acquainted, and to which he expressly refers as a source of information. So far as he endeavours to support it by reasoning, he himself acknowledges, that his induction of particulars is incomplete, and it is obviously so to a much greater extent than he was willing to allow. And, what is of still higher consequence, comparatively excellent and perfect as his scheme was, it has scarcely procured him a follower among the multitude of infidels that succeeded him. Most of them, indeed, have set it aside as abridging that latitude of free-thinking by which they wish to be distinguished; and instead of supplying its deficiencies and correcting its mistakes, which the pretensions of Deism would have led us to expect they have gradually declined from the high ground on which it had placed them, and sunk into the lowest depths of scepticism and infidelity.
There is nothing, perhaps, which is more deserving of notice in the conduct of the deistical unbelievers, or which can more forcibly strike a serious reader, or which contributes more to the result we are aiming at, than the perfect ease, and not seldom the self-complacent levity with which they lay down their principles and speak of their conclusions. They expunge an attribute from the character of God; or they contend against the belief of his government of the world; or they blot out immortality from the record of human hopes; or they reduce it, from being the great scene of moral retribution, to a mere picture of the fancy - they do this, not only without one sigh of regret, and without one feeling of compunction, but with such coolness as they would rectify an eror in the most common transactions of life. They talk, indeed, of their reverence for sacred truth, but they can put forth the hand of no ordinary daring upon the mighty perfections of Jehovah and the eternal prospects of our race, with less ceremony than they would employ in settling the personal merits of an earthly friend, or in deciding upon the commercial enterprises of the humblest citizen. They seem even anxious to show, by some decisive proof of independence, that they are not under the trammels of the Bible, and have therefore no hesitation in denouncing as superstition and falsehood, certain of the positions which it contains on that more limited scheme of theology within which they profess to confine their speculations and their faith. And, in this manner, while they have exhibited the fact, in its most indisputable form, that unbelievers have never afforded us a full and consistent view of the religion of nature, but have left out one or other of its fundamental doctrines; they have, at the same time, betrayed a spirit which is ready to regard them all with indifference or contempt, which would be more in its natural element, the more it receded from any connection, or from any contact whatever with the system of Christianity, and to whose wanderings, therefore, we feel it impossible to assign any limits on this side of speculative or practical atheism.
II. In support of our proposition, we appeal, in the second place, to the prevailing infidelity of the day, of whose character and features every one must judge, so far as it has come within his knowledge, or presented itself to his observation. We have spoken of those unbelievers who have published their sentiments; and if, when they were deliberately committing themselves to the world, and, in a permanent record of their opinions, giving over their reputation to the judgment of their contemporaries, and handing it down for the decision of posterity - if with this responsibility hanging over them, they departed so far from the living God, and wandered in the paths of general irreligion, to what lengths may not we expect the many to go, who have no such restraints upon them, either in forming or in declaring their sentiments? What can we expect, but that having a greater latitude for their unbelief, their unbelief will take a wider range - that they will speak more freely than they would have written - and that in the tone and complexion of their character, they should give sufficiently intelligible tokens of their having a still more reckless infidelity in their minds than they have courage to avow? And this is just the fact which is realised in every corner of the unbelieving world. Infidelity puts on a great variety of aspects; it dresses itself in a thousand garbs; its appearance is diversified by colours and shades as numerous almost as the individuals by whom it is exhibited. But there is one leading feature which it never loses, and which the whole of those to whom it attaches and shows them to be members of the same family - a feature of determined hostility, or of settled contempt for what is sacred - not merely of Jesus Christ, but for all that relates to the belief and service of the living God.
We have heard, indeed, of men who affected to hold fast by the tenets of natural religion, while they repudiated those of divine revelation; but we have never been so fortunate as to see and, converse with one of them whose creed, select, and circumscribed, and palatable as he had made it, seemed to have any serious footing in his mind or any practical influence on his life; who could restrain his sneer at piety the most untinctured with enthusiasm; or who could check his speculations, however hostile to the system he had affected to embrace; or who worshipped God in whose existence and attributes he acknowledged his belief; or who acted with a view to that immortality for which he allowed that the soul of man is destined.
It is true the votaries of infidelity are often placed in circumstances which constrain them to hold such language, and maintain such a deportment, as by itself might indicate the presence of Christian principle. They are frequently not at liberty to give that full play, and that unreserved publicity to their unbelief, in which, however, it is naturally disposed to indulge, and in which it would undoubtedly manifest itself, were it free at large. And you may not at particular times, and in situations, perceive any marked distinction between them and the devoted followers of Jesus of Nazareth. They may find it prejudicial to their interest, or to their good name, to make an open avowal of any approach, however distant, to the confines of atheism. They may have a family and in the tenderness of parental affection, and with the conviction that what they regard as altogether false may contribute as much to the virtue and happiness of their children as if it were altogether true, they may shrink from any declaration of infidelity within the domestic circle. They may acknowledge, in the season of their own distress, or they may suggest, amid the distresses of their friends, those considerations to which the mind, when softened, or when agitated by affliction, naturally clings, even though it has no habitual conviction of their truth, and no proper title to the consolation which they afford. They may be driven by bodily anguish or by impending danger, to utter the language of a piety which till that moment was a stranger even to their lips, just as the mariner has been known, amidst the perils and horrors of a shipwreck to cry for mercy from that God whose existence he had never before confessed, but by his profaneness and blasphemies. Or they may be strongly and insensibly induced to accommodate themselves to prevailing customs, and to pay an outward homage to the faith of the New Testament, by occasionally attending its institutions, though they are all the while regarding it as a mere harmless fable, if not as a contemptible or a pernicious superstition.
But look at them when placed in those circumstances which put no such restraints upon what they may say and do as the enemies of Christianity; observe them when the pride of intellect tempts them to display their learning or their ingenuity in contending against the vulgar faith - or when they have a passion to gratify which needs the aid of some principle to vindicate its indulgence - or when they have nothing to fear from giving utterance to what they think and feel - or when they happen to be associated with those among whom the quality of freethinking prevails - observe them as to the language which they employ, and the practice which they maintain with respect to religion, in the ordinary course and tenour of their lives; and then say what positive proofs they give you of the reality or of the efficacy of those religious principles which they profess to have retained, after putting away from them the doctrine of Christ. Say, if instead of affording you positive proofs of such remanent and distinctive piety, they are not displaying daily and inveterate symptoms that God, and Providence, and immortality, are not in all their thoughts.Say, if you have not seen many a melancholy demonstration of that general irreligion which we have ascribed to them as the consequence of their throwing off the dominion of the Gosel. And say if you have not been able to trace this down through the gradations of infidelity, from the speculative philosopher, who has decided that there is no Saviour, till you come to the fool, who says, in the weakness and the wickedness of his heart, there is no God.
In reply to this, we shall probably hear it alleged, that there may be religious principle and religious feeling where there is no religious display - that those are not always the most devout, whose devotion makes the most noise, and attracts the most notice - that the theology of nature being much simpler than the theology of revelation, it is not capable of being evidenced by such marked and decisive symptoms.
But we are not to be satisfied with such allegations. When those who reject Christianity take refuge in the doctrine and habits of Quietism, and pretend to the exercises of inward contemplative piety, in order to save themselves from the charge of utter infidelity, we do not think it necessary to follow them into their retreat with any thing in the shape of argument, or to disturb their repose even by a single observation. If they mean to defend their cause by referring to the sanctimoniousness and hypocrisy of mere nominal Christians, we take away their defence by giving up to them these traitors as their own allies, and acknowledging that whenever we shall build upon such a hollow foundation, they are at liberty to overthrow our superstructure, and to erect their system upon its ruins. And, so far as the general principle of their allegation is concerned, we maintain that it has no force or weight in it. For if the doctrines of natural religion be cordially admitted they cannot but be accompanied by external tokens of their reception and their influence. They may be prevented by various circumstances, from producing all the effect which might be wished or expected; but there will be such manifestations of them, as leave no room for doubting that they are the objects of belief. In the conversation and the conduct there will be a plain recognition of God's existence and of his perfections, and of his government of the world, and of a future state of retribution., And all this we shall confidently expect to find in the case of those, who deliberately separate between the religion of nature and the religion of Jesus; who have discarded the latter as a fable, and who have adhered to the former as a system of doctrine purified from error and superstition, and arrayed in all the majesty of unquestionable and eternal truth. But can it be pretended that such things are realised in the character of infidels; or that they are realised to such an extent as can disprove our position? Where shall we find among infidels any thing approaching to a demonstration, or even amounting to a presumption, that their minds have kept fast hold of the general principles of religion, after having thrown off the authority of the Gospel ? Do not we hear in the.language, and do not we see in the conduct, of the uneducated class of believers, the most shocking evidences of a total disregard of every thing of a sacred kind ? Among their more learned and philosophical brethren, although there may be fewer practical proofs of the fact, can we fail to discern, along with their avowed rejection of Christianity, numerous and unequivocal traces of indiscriminate, universal, reckless scepticism? And as to those of the fraternity who pretend not to the intellectual attainments of the latter, and are superior to the former in rank, and circumstances, and influence, while they talk of revelation with almost undisguised contempt, do not they at the same time live without any actual acknowledgment of God as their Governor and Judge; or, if they make any such profession, it is obviously and undeniably a mere accommodation to surrounding prejudice, as they would term it; or a mere employment of that which they neither love nor believe themselves, as a political engine for the management and subjugation of others?
If, in answer to the statements we have just made, it be charged upon us that we advance them without proof, we have only to cast ourselves upon the judgment of every man of candour and observation. We pretend not, in a case of this kind, to adduce such evidence as would be required in a court of law. We cannot specify all the individual instances which have led us to our general conclusion. Nor do we ask any one's assent to it, except in so far as the facts to which we have referred have come within the sphere of his own knowledge. If you say that the representation we have does not accord with what you have actually noticed, we do not insist upon your being influenced by it, and we do not urge it upon you as any ground of arguement at all. But we request that you would look around you on the unbelieving world, and examine whether its aspect corresponds with the allegation we have brought forward, if you find such a correspondence existing, we then expect that you will admit the point as sufficiently substantiated, and that you will allow it its due weight on your decision of the suhject we are discussing.
And what is the precise bearing the fact on the position we are endeavouring to establish? We do not say that it puts the truth of that position beyond controversy; but we certainly have a right to say, that, taken in connection with what is presented to us by the history of Deism, it affords a strong presumptive proof of our doctrine. Since those who have rejected Christianity have almost invariably fallen into a disregard of all religion, it is unquestionably fair and rational to infer, that the one species of infidelity naturally leads to the other. If this be not granted, we are at least entitled to call for a satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon ; and, till that explanation be given, we cannot help regarding and employing it as the foundation of an argument altogether legitimate, and not easily resisted.
END OF SERMON ONE
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